When George R.R. Martin was a kid in Bayonne, New Jersey, looking across the water to Staten Island and imagining the fantasy world that would make him famous, perhaps he dreamed of awards and accolades to go along with creating a literary juggernaut. It's likely he didn't imagine a MiLBY in his future.
In the world of Minor League Baseball, anything is possible.
On Aug. 8, the Staten Island Yankees welcomed their (semi-)native son to Richmond County Bank Ballpark in a groundbreaking partnership that helped to spawn the most in-depth Game of Thrones promotional night in the Minor Leagues. Martin, the now-legendary creator of the Staten Island-inspired King's Landing, was in attendance to greet fans, sign autographs and take the opportunity to promote the mission of Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a New Mexico preserve for wolves. The Yankees dubbed themselves the Direwolves for the night, a tribute to the show's House Stark, and gave away hats with a GoT-themed logo as well as copies of a Martin novel. Nothing like it had been seen in the Minors, and nearly three months later, the event earned the nod from the fans to take 2015 Promo of the Year.
"We couldn't have done it without George," Staten Island senior director of marketing and fan experience Mike Holley said. "We want to thank him for getting involved with it. It's crazy, too, because part of the reason [Game of Thrones Night] was so successful was because the franchise was at the top of its popularity. That's the thing that makes it special, that he didn't need us. We were small potatoes, but he came because of a combination of factors: He's from the area, we scheduled it for a time when he was in town, and we were probably one of the first to be able to get through to him."
Holley took a flier and tried emailing Martin last offseason and, to his surprise, heard back from the prolific author within hours. Martin was not only interested, but he got HBO and Random House publishing onboard with the idea as well. Whereas other Game of Thrones tributes had to avoid certain direct references to the series due to network and publisher endorsement, the Yankees were behind the walls.
"The thing that feels the most surreal is how well it went when he was here; getting Random House involved, HBO involved, getting the wolf involved from the wolf sanctuary, having more people than ever before at the ballpark," Holley explained. "Having all of that obviously creates a situation where a lot can go wrong, but that it all came together to form an unforgettable night is the most surreal aspect. I never felt that things were as awesome as they were during that night."
Yankees and GoT fans alike flocked to Richmond County Bank Ballpark, packing the facility with a sellout crowd of 7,529.
"The reason it sold out is because George came, but it was an award-winning night because our team killed it when he was here," Holley said. "It's one thing to have a sellout but another to impress that many people and hopefully create some new fans."
Martin mingled with fans pregame before heading onto the field to discuss Wild Spirit -- with a wolf by his side.
"When George came on to the field to talk about the charity, that was probably the climax," Holley said. "The entire stadium, full of people, and all of them rapt, completely paying attention, hanging on every word. There was even some comic relief, when the wolf peed on the sponsor logo.
"Hanging out with a wolf was not something I thought I would do. Walking on the concourse with a wolf, I didn't think that was something I would do. Even running out of [crowd-control] stanchions was a good feeling, just realizing how big of a night it was. And the fact that the entire crowd embraced the idea of chanting 'shame' every time an opposing player struck out. That's something that we were able to carry into future games."
House Stark and visiting House Lannister (nee Hudson Valley) sported special themed jerseys for the night, and the auction of those tops to benefit Wild Spirit was a massive hit.
"Raising money for jerseys, raising over $10,000, and seeing how much that meant to [Wild Spirit executive director Layton Cougar] -- he actually teared up. So to move the needle like that, that was a great moment."
Beyond just what the promotion meant in the moment, the Yankees have increasingly viewed their Game of Thrones Night as a building block for bigger things for the franchise.
"We had a lot of [staff] turnover here. This core group has been together for a couple of years now," Holley said. "This is the height so far. It's important for us to signal that it can be done well, that we can do something as good as anybody else is doing and build off of it. It's a big win for us to do something on that scale. The award is motivation -- it sets a new bar for us to meet every year. We want to be one of those teams you read about every year, and this is us dipping our toe into that next level."
In the most crowded media market in the nation, the Yankees are in a unique position of having to compete with big league sports options all around while continuing to put forth the fun, affordable, family-friendly product synonymous with Minor League Baseball. Game of Thrones Night hit it out of the park.
"We've started planning now [for next year]," Holley said. "I'm digging through the licensing [issues]. The plan internally is to do one a month, something of that scope, that caliber. We're shooting for three [such nights in 2016]. We've got some good ideas and are definitely excited.
"[The MiLBY] is validation that we did one right. That's great for us. It serves as encouragement for us to keep it up, keep pushing and do something that has an impact."
Fresno Grizzlies go taco-crazy: Perhaps no promo in 2015 caused quite the buzz that Fresno's one-night rebrand did. In tribute to their fifth annual Taco Truck Throwdown at Chukchansi Park, the Grizzlies took the field as the Tacos, complete with flashy new logos, caps and uniforms designed in house. Fresno's fresh look exploded with international media coverage and merchandise orders from across the globe. The Tacos came through both in honoring the food of the night and on the field against their biggest rivals, defeating the Sacramento River Cats.
Rochester Red Wings remember Miracle on Ice: A short distance from Rochester, the United States men's hockey team pulled off one of the most improbable upsets in sports history by defeating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. The Red Wings paid homage to that watershed moment in American sports 35 years later when they and the visiting Syracuse Chiefs sported USA hockey-themed jerseys. Alumni of the "Miracle on Ice" team were on hand to "shoot out" the first pitch, and Red Wings fans went home with commemorative pucks.